Dec 302016

Lentils (French Puy variety) and sausages. | Photo copyright Nathan Hoyt, 2016

Lentils and pork sausages, the first to represent coins, the second for abundance, served up together, has long been considered an auspicious dish with which to usher in the New Year in some parts of Italy. Take Modena’s lenticchie di Capodanno, braised lentils crowned with zampone, a delicate mixture of finely ground pork subtly seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and black pepper stuffed into a pig’s trotter; or cotechino, a similar sausage, sans the trotter. One or the other is obligatory eating when the clock strikes midnight everywhere north of Rome—sumptuous eating, but not easily reproduced outside of Modena unless you have access to a good Italian specialty market.

Lentils are meant to represent coins. These are the Umbrian variety.| Photo: copyright Nathan Hoyt, 2016

For me, the important thing is to include not only lentils for luck and pork for plenty, but also, olive oil, ancient symbol of long life, renewal, and peace. Life begins with olive oil: A drop on a newborn’s head is a traditional blessing in Italian households, and it is mixed with baby’s first solid food. It anoints the breasts of monarchs at their coronations and marks the foreheads of the dying in their final breath of life. Here’s our family’s delicious New Year lentil and sausage dish using all three ingredients.

About lentils:

Brown lentils, particularly the tiny, plump Umbrian Castelluccio type that hold their shape, are traditional, but you can also use the tasty French green, or Puy variety; alternatively, the earthy “black” Beluga lentils.

Procuring Good Sausages:

You will need good quality, straightforward pork sausages, which in America are labeled “sweet pork sausages.”It is best to source them from butchers who use meat from sustainably and humanely raised pigs that are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Such meat not only tastes better, it is better for you than pork produced from factory-farmed animals, and takes into account animal welfare. In addition, it is important to know whether any chemicals have been added. Monosodium glutamate, nitrates, or nitrites are routinely used in the sausage-making process. While the meat industry maintains that MSG improves flavor and nitrites preserves the red color of meat, there is incontrovertible proof that they are bad for your health. The best pork sausages are made using whole muscle, not scraps, and enough fat to make them juicy without being greasy. Sausages sold in the States are often gussied up with all kinds of flavorings, from broccoli to pineapple. Italian butchers do not do this. The famous butchers of Umbria, a region famed for its pork sausages and salumi, season theirs with judicious amounts of mashed fresh garlic and black pepper and little else.

Master “norcino” (pork butcher) Marcello making sausages at Fattoria Luchetti farm and butchery in Collazzone, on our culinary tour of Umbria last year (left to right in background are Fran Hecker, Ken Schwartz, and Maureen McGowan | Photo: copyright Nathan Hoyt, 2016

About Olive Oil:

If you haven’t already read my report about olive oil, don’t miss it. You’ll find it here, along with a link to the full story I wrote for Zester Daily.

My New Year’s Lentils and Sausages

For 6 people

You can make the lentils several hours ahead, but cook the sausages at the last minute if you’d like to serve them sizzling and glistening. To prepare the entire dish in advance of serving, cook the sausages earlier in the day and warm them together with the lentils in a covered casserole in a preheated 375 degree F oven, moistening the lentils as necessary with the reserved lentil cooking water. Pre-boiling before braising lentils reduces their starchiness, rendering them sweeter and rounding out their earthy flavor.

1 pound (about 2-1/4 cups) lentils

1 bay leaf

1 small bunch fresh sage, tied into a bundle with kitchen twine

4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus your best olive oil for the table

1 small celery heart with leaves, or 1 stalk, minced

1 medium carrot, peeled and minced

1 small onion, minced

4 large cloves garlic, bruised

salt, preferably sea salt

3 tablespoons tomato paste

freshly ground black pepper

12 “sweet” Italian-style pork sausages

  1. Rinse and pick over the lentils for small stones or impurities. Cover them with cold water and soak them for a few minutes. Transfer them to a colander and wash them in cold running water. Drain. Put the lentils and bay leaf and sage bundle in a pot and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until they are not quite tender, about 15 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms at the top. Because cooking times can vary, you’ll want to taste them at this point. If they are still quite hard, cook further for 5-minute increments and keep checking until they are al dente. Turn off the heat and stir in 3 teaspoons of salt; let stand for 5 minutes. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water. Fish out the bay and sage leaves.
  1. In an ample skillet over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Stir in the garlic. When it is lightly colored, add the chopped celery, carrot, and onion, and sautè, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are nicely softened, but do not allow them to brown, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the drained lentils. Add the tomato paste and enough lentil water to barely cover. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have absorbed the liquid and they are completely tender but not mushy, 5-10 minutes. Add more of the reseved cooking water as necessary to keep the lentils from drying out, but avoid adding more than will be absorbed. The consistency should be loose but not watery. Turn off the heat and let stand for about 10 minutes. Season with pepper.
  1. To cook the sausages, preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Select an ample, seasoned cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed oven-proof pan. Warm a tablespoon or two of the olive oil over medium heat. You will want it to shimmer but not smoke. Slip in the sausages. If they are in a coil, cook the coil whole without cutting it or puncturing it. Brown on both sides just to color them nicely but don’t cook them through, about 6 minutes on each side, regulating the heat as necessary to get them to sear without hardening and resisting the temptation to prick them at any point. Transfer the pan to the middle rack of the oven and roast until just cooked through but not dried out, 5-10 minutes depending on the girth of the sausages. Remove from heat.
  1. Plate the lentils in a wide, shallow platter. Finish with a thread of your best olive oil. Arrange the sausages on top. Serve it forth.


Aug 252016
Spaghetti all'amatriciana. | Photo: Copyright NathanHoyt/Forktales 2016

Spaghetti all’amatriciana. | Photo: Copyright NathanHoyt/Forktales 2016

The quake struck Amatrice and the surrounding area at 3:36 a.m. — amazingly, almost the exact same time as the one that devastated L’Aquila and Abruzzi in 2009, which killed over 300. Some of the dead, this time, were tourists. Travelers go to Amatrice in August for the mild climate, an evening stroll and spaghetti all’amatriciana — a dish famous all over the world, invented by local shepherds in the Middle Ages.

This week, the town was getting ready for the 50th annual festival dedicated to the celebrated sauce. Luckily, most visitors had left for the night. But the Hotel Roma had 70 guests, and at the time of writing they are unaccounted for.

So wrote Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Italy’s Corriere della Sera in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times today.

Poster advertising the 50th Spaghetti all'Amatriciana festival in Amatrice.

Poster advertising the 50th Spaghetti all’Amatriciana festival in Amatrice.

I heard the news just after midnight, coincidentally nearly a year to the day that Nat and I drove the old Roman roads for the picturesque mountain villages of the Apennines—Norcia, Amatrice, and Ascoli Piceno, where the Umbria, Lazio, and Marche regions merge. As it happens, I was still working in my kitchen, up to my elbows preserving the last of the summer’s tomatoes. My tears mingled with tomato juice on the cutting board as I listened to updates coming in on the radio and called to mind my first stop there many years ago to learn the secrets of the best “sughetto all’amatriciana,” as the now world famous sauce was known in the local parlance.

The following morning, I leapt out of bed to read the news only to see this headline in The Guardian: “Mayor of Amatrice: ‘the town isn’t here anymore.'”

Just the tomatoes, and just enough, for "amatriciana." | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016.

Just the tomatoes, and just enough, for “amatriciana.” | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016.

The rest of the day was all but lost except for picking up where I left off the night before preserving the remaining tomatoes that my daughter Gabriella had brought me in a big box from her CSA a few days earlier. There were six pounds more of Juliet mini-Romas to cut, seed, and oven-dry and a mere two and a half pounds of a rich red, thick-walled variety to put up that I didn’t know the name of. I’d never seen that heart-shaped type before, but a bite of one that had split open proved dense and succulent without being watery, and it had a bracing sweetness—better than any of the Romas I’d ever tasted outside of Italy. There were just enough of them to make a sughetto to cover a pound of our favorite spaghetti, which we took as a sign; off Nat went to buy a fresh hunk of pecorino and pancetta (guanciale was not to be found) for the proper makings of the dish, the method for which I had been carefully instructed so long ago.

At dinner, we said grace and remembered the little town founded by the ancient Sabines on the soft slopes of the green Tronto Valley that survived Romans and Lombards, Angevines and Aragonese, Fascists and Nazis, and hosts of other menaces in between, but not the earthquake of 2016; a town where the people once regaled themselves with spaghetti anointed with tomato, bacon, and sheep cheese. We ate, grateful for the dish they invented. Tragically, there will be no Sagra degli Spaghetti all’Amatriciana this weekend, but here’s the recipe if you would like to make it in memory of those who died on August 24, the day Amatrice disappeared.

Tomatoes for "amatriciana." detail. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016

Tomatoes for “amatriciana.” detail. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016

Spaghetti all’amatriciana

Spaghetti with Tomato, Guanciale and Pecorino in the Style of Amatrice

For 4 to 6 people

(adapted from my book, Roma: Authentic Recipes From In And Around the Eternal City [Chronicle Books])

This dish, which originated in Rieti Province, is one of Latium’s best-known pasta specialties. The sauce is traditionally made with guanciale, salted and cured pig’s jowl, a specialty of the province and of Latium in general. Pancetta can be substituted. Over the years, the recipe has sometimes seen olive oil replacing the more tasty lard of tradition. The genuine method involves adding grated pecorino (semi-aged sheep cheese) in three stages, once during the cooking of the sauce, once after the pasta is cooked but not yet sauced, and a last time when it is sprinkled on the served pasta. The semi-aged cheese deepens the flavor and gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.

*A note about the pecorino, which is such an essential part of the dish: A semi-aged pecorino (sheep cheese, or cacio) from the Roman province would be ideal. I found it in the U.S. in recent years in good cheese specialty shops, including the cheese departments at most Whole Foods stores. The aged pecorino romano that has been imported here for so long is exceedingly salty and dry in comparison but if that is all you can get, cut down on the 1/2 teaspoon salt called for to season the sauce.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or lard

1/2 small onion, finely chopped

4 ounces pancetta, thickly sliced and cut into julienne (strips 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide)

1 small, fresh hot pepper sliced in half, or 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 pounds fresh vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, juices reserved, or 28 ounces canned Italian plum tomatoes in juice, drained (juices reserved), seeded, and chopped

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

4 tablespoons freshly grated semi-aged pecorino (cacio romano), or good pecorino romano, plus more for serving

1 pound imported Italian spaghetti

2 tablespoons kosher salt for cooking pasta

In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and pancetta and sauté until golden without allowing the onion to brown, about 12 minutes. Stir in the hot pepper and the tomato paste. Add the tomatoes, their reserved juice, and the sea salt. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat until thickened, 15-20 minutes or as needed, stirring occasionally. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the pecorino. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and keep it warm.

Fill a large pot with 5 quarts of water. Bring it to a boil and add the pasta and the salt. Stir immediately. Cook over high heat, according to package directions (cooking times vary from one manufacturer to another depending on their particular wheat blend and drying process), stirring occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking together until it is 1 minute shy of al dente. The pasta must not be overcooked.

Drain the pasta, setting aside 2 tablespoons of the cooking water; return it to the cooking pot and toss it together with the reserved cooking water and 2 tablespoons more of the grated cheese over a high flame until the moisture is absorbed, 15-30 seconds. Transfer the pasta to the skillet with the sauce, and toss well. Sprinkle in the 2 more tablespoons of pecorino and toss again. When the strands are well coated with the sauce, remove the skillet from the flame and serve it at once, piping hot. Pass more pecorino at the table.

Aug 232016
Italy's Sweetest Little Salsa: "Exploded Tomatoes"

I’ve had a stellar crop of cherry tomatoes this year and they’re ripening on the vine faster than I can pick them, never mind eat them. Time for one of Italy’s sweetest little tomato sauces —pomodorini scoppiati, literally, “exploded cherry tomatoes.” The recipe and story just out in Zester Daily today, here.  

Aug 192016
Consider Venice's Golden Cookies

Zaletti are one of Venice’s favorite biscotti. Made with the region’s favorite grain, corn polenta, and often served with a fruit sauce for dipping, you could call them Venice-in-a-cookie. My ever curious friend, James Beard award winning author, chef, and master baker Greg Patent was intrigued when I told him that I like to have them for breakfast alongside a cup of cappuccino. So he made them and wrote up the recipe with step-by-step photos for his terrific blog, The Baking Wizard, here. Their name comes from the Venetian word for yellow, “zalo.” Ground corn, or polenta, substitutes for wheat throughout […more…]

Mar 262016
The Olive Oil Scandals: Italy Fights Back

A trip to Rome at this time of year is usually timed for a feast on the region’s spring vegetables that overflow in the market stalls and somehow seem to taste better in the Eternal City than they do anywhere else. But this year, I was in Rome on a mission to hear what the Italian government had to say about the state of the country’s olive oil production, whose reputation has been damaged by scandal after scandal in recent years—and the bad publicity just doesn’t seem to let up. Here’s my report from a high-powered conference called by government officials and the country’s consortium of […more…]